In the three-plus decades since Ola Karlsson began painting houses and offices for a living, he has seen oil wealth transform the Norwegian economy. He has participated in a construction boom that has refashioned Oslo, the capital. He has watched the rent climb at his apartment in the center of the city.
What he has not seen in many years is a pay raise, not even as Norway's unemployment rate has remained below 5 percent, signaling that working hands are in short supply.
"The salary has been at the same level," Mr. Karlsson, 49, said as he took a break from painting an office complex in this Oslo suburb. "I haven't seen my pay go up in five years."
His lament resonates far beyond Nordic shores. In many major countries, including the United States, Britain and Japan, labor markets are exceedingly tight, with jobless rates a fraction of what they were during the crisis of recent years. Yet workers are still waiting for a benefit that traditionally accompanies lower unemployment: fatter paychecks.
Why wages are not rising faster amounts to a central economic puzzle.
Some economists argue that the world is still grappling with the hangover from the worst downturn since the Great Depression. Once growth gains momentum, employers will be forced to pay more to fill jobs.
But other economists assert that the weak growth in wages is an indicator of a new economic order in which working people are at the mercy of their employers. Unions have lost clout. Companies are relying on temporary and part-time workers while deploying robots and other forms of automation in ways that allow them to produce more without paying extra to human beings. Globalization has intensified competitive pressures, connecting factories in Asia and Latin America to customers in Europe and North America.
"Generally, people have very little leverage to get a good deal from their bosses, individually and collectively," says Lawrence Mishel, president of the Economic Policy Institute, a labor-oriented research organization in Washington. "People who have a decent job are happy just to hold on to what they have."
The reasons for the stagnation gripping wages vary from country to country, but the trend is broad.
In the United States, the jobless rate fell to 4.2 percent in September, less than half the 10 percent seen during the worst of the Great Recession. Still, for the average American worker, wages had risen by only 2.9 percent over the previous year. That was an improvement compared with recent months, but a decade ago, when the unemployment rate was higher, wages were growing at a rate of better than 4 percent a year.
In Britain, the unemployment rate ticked down to 4.3 percent in August, its lowest level since 1975. Yet wages had grown only 2.1 percent in the past year. That was below the rate of inflation, meaning workers' costs were rising faster than their pay.
In Japan, weak wage growth is both a symptom of an economy dogged by worries, and a force that could keep the future lean, depriving workers of spending power.
In Norway, as in Germany, modest pay raises are a result of coordination between labor unions and employers to keep costs low to bolster industry. That has put pressure on Italy, Spain and other European nations to keep wages low so as not to lose orders.
But the trend also reflects an influx of dubious companies staffed by immigrants who receive wages well below prevailing rates, undermining union power.
That this is happening even in Norway — whose famed Nordic model places a premium on social harmony — underscores the global forces that are at work. Jobs that require specialized, advanced skills are growing. So are low-paying, low-skill jobs. Positions in between are under perpetual threat.
"The crisis accelerated the adjustment, the restructuring away from goods producing jobs and more into the service sector," says Stefano Scarpetta, director for employment, labor and social affairs at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris. "Many of those who lost jobs and went back to work landed in jobs that pay less."
Union power eroded
In November 2016, a week after Donald J. Trump was elected president on a pledge to bring jobs back to America, the people of Elyria, Ohio — a city of 54,000 people about 30 miles west of Cleveland — learned that another local factory was about to close.
The plant, operated by 3M, made raw materials for sponges. Conditions there were influenced by an increasingly rare feature of American life: a union that represented the workers.
The union claimed the closing was a result of production being moved to Mexico. Management said it was merely cutting output as it grappled with a glut coming from Europe. Either way, 150 people would lose their jobs, Larry Noel among them.
Mr. Noel, 46, had begun working at the plant seven years earlier as a general laborer, earning $18 an hour. He had worked his way up to batch maker, mixing the chemicals that congealed into sponge material, a job that paid $25.47 an hour.
Now, he would have to start over. The unemployment rate in the Cleveland area was then down to 5.6 percent. Yet most of the jobs that would suit Mr. Noel paid less than $13 dollars an hour.
"These companies know," he said. "They know you need a job, and you've got to take it."
In the end, he found a job that paid only slightly less than his previous position. His new factory was a nonunion shop.
"A lot of us wish it were union," he said, "because we'd have better wages."
Last year, only 10.7 percent of American workers were represented by a union, down from 20.1 percent in 1983, according to Labor Department data. Many economists see the decline as a key to why employers can pay lower wages.
In 1972, so-called production and nonsupervisory workers — some 80 percent of the American work force — brought home average wages equivalent to $738.86 a week in today's dollars, after adjusting for inflation, according to an Economic Policy Institute analysis of federal data. Last year, the average worker brought home $723.67 a week.
In short, 44 years had passed with the typical American worker absorbing a roughly 2 percent pay cut.
The streets of Elyria attested to the consequences of this long decline in earning power.
"There's some bail bondsmen, some insurance companies and me," said Don Panik, who opened his gold and silver trading shop in 1982 after he was laid off as an autoworker at a local General Motors plant.
Down the block, a man with a towel slung over bare shoulders panhandled in front of a strip club, underneath a hand-lettered sign that said "Dancers Wanted." A tattoo parlor was open for business, near a boarded-up law office.
One storefront was full of activity — Adecco, the staffing company. A sign beckoned job applicants: "General Laborers. No Experience Necessary. $10/hour."
Lyndsey Martin had reached the point where the proposition had appeal.
Until three years ago, Ms. Martin worked at Janesville Acoustics, a factory midway between Cleveland and Toledo. The plant made insulation and carpets for cars. She put products into boxes, earning $14 an hour.
That, combined with what her husband, Casey, earned at the plant, was enough to allow them to rent a house in the town of Wakeman, where their front porch looked out on a leafy street.
Then, in summer 2013, word spread that the plant was shutting down, putting 300 people out of work.
Ms. Martin took 18 months off to care for her children. In early 2015, she began to look for work, scouring the web for factory jobs. Most required associate's degrees. The vast majority were temporary.
She took a job at a gas station, ringing up purchases of fuel, soda and fried chicken for $9 an hour, less than two-thirds of what she had previously earned.
"It almost feels degrading," she said.
Her hours fluctuated. Some weeks she worked 35; most weeks, 24.
A competitor to Ms. Martin's former employer has set up a factory directly opposite the plant where she used to work. The company hired 150 people, but not her. She said she had heard the jobs paid three to four dollars less per hour than she used to make.
Ms. Martin recently took a new job at a beer and wine warehouse. It also paid $9 an hour, but with the potential for a $1 raise in 90 days. In a life of downgraded expectations, that registered as progress.
Conventional economics would suggest that this is an excellent time for Kuniko Sonoyama to command a substantial pay increase.
For the past 10 years, she has worked in Tokyo, inspecting televisions, cameras and other gear for major electronics companies.
After decades of decline and stagnation, the Japanese economy has expanded for six straight quarters. Corporate profits are at record highs. And Japan's population is declining, a result of immigration restrictions and low birthrates. Unemployment is just 2.8 percent, the lowest level in 22 years.
Yet, Ms. Sonoyama, like growing numbers of Japanese workers, is employed through a temporary staffing agency. She has received only one raise — two years ago, when she took on a difficult assignment.
"I'm always wondering if it's O.K. that I never make more money," Ms. Sonoyama, 36, said. "I'm anxious about the future."
That concern runs the risk of becoming self-fulfilling, for Japan as a whole. Average wages in the country rose by only 0.7 percent last year, after adjusting for the costs of living.
The government has pressed companies to pay higher wages, cognizant that too much economic anxiety translates into a deficit of consumer spending, limiting paychecks for all.
But companies have mostly sat on their increased profits rather than share them with employees. Many are reluctant to take on extra costs out of a fear that the good times will not last.
It is a fear born of experience. Ever since Japan's monumental real estate investment bubble burst in the early 1990s, the country has grappled with a pernicious residue of that era: so-called deflation, or falling prices.
Declining prices have limited businesses' incentive to expand and hire. What hiring companies do increasingly involves employment agencies that on average pay two-thirds of equivalent full-time work.
Today, almost half of Japanese workers under 25 are in part-time or temporary positions, up from 20 percent in 1990. And women, who typically earn 30 percent less than men, have filled a disproportionate number of jobs.
Years of corporate cost-cutting has weakened Japan's unions, which tend to prioritize job security over pay.
The recent uptick in wages, although modest, has raised hopes of increased spending that would embolden businesses to raise pay and to upgrade temporary workers to full-time employees.
Until that happens, workers will probably remain hunkered down, reluctant to spend.
"I have enough to live on now," Ms. Sonoyama said, "but I worry about old age."